Mexico is one of the world's great travel destinations and millions of visitors travel safely here each year. Yet drug-related violence and widespread media coverage of Mexico's insecurity have severely impacted its tourism industry. Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have been engaged in brutal fights against each other for control of trafficking routes and with the Mexican government, which has deployed military troops and federal police across the country. The region covered by this guide, Cancún and the Yucatán, has generally not experienced the violence or insecurity affecting many other parts of the country. The Mexican government is working hard to protect visitors to all major tourist destinations, which do not experience anything like the levels of violence and crime reported in the border region and along major drug trafficking routes, mainly in the north.
In most places, it's uncommon for foreign visitors to face anything worse than petty crime. The risk of pickpockets and petty theft rises considerably during the winter high tourist season. Always use common sense and exercise caution when in unfamiliar areas. Leave valuables and irreplaceable items in a safe place, or don't bring them at all. Use hotel safes when available. Avoid driving alone, especially at night. You can generally trust a person whom you approach for help or directions, but be wary of anyone who approaches you offering the same. The more insistent a person is, the more cautious you should be. Stay away from areas where drug dealing and prostitution occur. These tips should help make your trip even more enjoyable.
The U.S. and Mexico share a border more than 3,000km (nearly 2,000 miles) long and Americans comprise the vast majority of tourists to Mexico. Due to this close and historically intertwined relationship, we recommend that all travelers read the U.S. Department of State travel advisories for Mexico (www.state.gov). The U.S. State Department encourages its citizens to use main roads during daylight hours, stay in well-known tourist destinations and tourist areas with better security, cooperate fully with Mexican military and other law enforcement checkpoints, and provide an itinerary to a friend or family member not traveling with them. Kidnapping continues to happen at an alarming rate. It can be useful to travel with a working cellphone, as well. This is good advice for all travelers to Mexico.
Crime in Resort Towns: There have been a significant number of rapes reported in Cancún and other resort areas, usually at night or in the early morning. Women should not walk alone late at night. Armed street crime is a serious problem in all the major cities. Some bars and nightclubs, especially in resort cities such as Cancún, can be havens for drug dealers and petty criminals.
The U.S. State Department offers specific safety and security information for travelers on spring break in Mexico: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/spring_break_mexico/spring_break_mexico_5014.html.
It is also advised that you should not hike alone in backcountry areas nor walk alone on less frequented beaches, ruins, or trails.
Highway Safety: Travelers should exercise caution while traveling Mexican highways, avoiding travel at night, and using toll (cuota) roads rather than the less secure free (libre) roads whenever possible. Fully cooperate with all official checkpoints, the number of which has increased, when traveling on Mexican highways.
Bus travel should take place during daylight hours on first-class conveyances. Although bus hijackings and robberies have occurred on toll roads, buses on toll roads have a markedly lower rate of incidents than second-class and third-class buses that travel the less secure "free" highways.
Bribes & Scams: As is the case around the world, there are the occasional bribes and scams in Mexico, targeted at people believed to be naive, such as telltale tourists. For years, Mexico was known as a place where bribes -- called mordidas (bites) -- were expected; however, the country is rapidly changing. Frequently, offering a bribe today, especially to a police officer, is considered an insult, and it can land you in deeper trouble.
Many tourists have the impression that everything works better in Mexico if you "tip"; however, in reality, this only perpetuates the mordida tradition. If you are pleased with a service, feel free to tip. But you shouldn't tip simply to attempt to get away with something illegal or inappropriate -- whether it is evading a ticket that's deserved or a car inspection as you're crossing the border.
Whatever you do, avoid impoliteness; you won't do yourself any favors if you insult a Mexican official. Extreme politeness, even in the face of adversity, rules Mexico. In Mexico, gringos have a reputation for being loud and demanding. By adopting the local custom of excessive courtesy, you'll have greater success in negotiations of any kind. Stand your ground, but do it politely.
As you travel in Mexico, you may encounter several types of scams, which are typical throughout the world. One involves some kind of a distraction or feigned commotion. While your attention is diverted, for example, a pickpocket makes a grab for your wallet. In another common scam, an unaccompanied child pretends to be lost and frightened and takes your hand for safety. Meanwhile the child or an accomplice plunders your pockets. A third involves confusing currency. A shoeshine boy, street musician, guide, or other individual might offer you a service for a price that seems reasonable -- in pesos. When it comes time to pay, he or she tells you the price is in dollars, not pesos. Be very clear on the price and currency when services are involved. An ATM scam involves ATMs in questionable locations where card numbers are "skimmed" and information is copied, money stolen, or cards fraudulently charged.
One More Author Gives His Two Cents: Safety in Mexico
Stories of murder and mayhem are making all the headlines about Mexico these days. Stories of assassinations, kidnappings, and shootouts sell newspapers but are of no help evaluating the risk in traveling through the country. They are newsworthy in that they document the gravity of the problem Mexico faces in gaining control of its borders and ensuring public safety. The best way to understand the risk of traveling in Mexico is to read the U.S. State Department Travel Warning (www.state.gov).
The current situation has changed the way I travel in two ways beyond the usual precautions -- such as not flashing a lot of money, not wearing an expensive watch, keeping aware of my surroundings, and not driving on the highway at night (for reasons that have more to do with practicalities than issues of crime). The changes I've made can be boiled down to two objectives: Avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and avoid the possibility of mistaken identity. The first is largely met by not lingering in Mexico's northern border states (including Durango and the interior of Sinaloa). This is where the immense majority of the violence is occurring. The second is meant to minimize any risk of being held up or nabbed by kidnappers, and it is achieved by looking as much like a tourist as possible. Kidnappers in Mexico don't target tourists. They have targeted resident foreigners who have family in the country or business people who have associates. They do this because they need someone to demand the ransom from. The risk here is from small-time gangs who act opportunistically. (Serious kidnappers aren't a threat because they won't do anything without planning and surveillance.) In the last few years, small-time gangs have increased. The best way I know of to avoid this risk is not to carry a briefcase or satchel, which is a business symbol. What's more, by hauling around a backpack, you will automatically escape scrutiny because businesspersons in Mexico never use them. The backpack (mochila) in Mexico is a strong cultural identifier. It's associated with students and counterculture types, so much so that the word mochilero has come to describe hippies.
-- David Baird
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.